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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) 
Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’ [73:11]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 9-12 February 2016, Philharmonie, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900184 [73:11]

Listening to this compelling new BR Klassik release of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony ‘Leningrad’ made me reflect on an interview I had with Vasily Petrenko a few years ago. Saint Petersburg-(Leningrad) born Petrenko is chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and was at the time in the midst of a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies. Petrenko explained that, ‘with all of them we can follow the history of his biography and the history of Russia in the twentieth century because they are all closely related to the events of the years that they were written. They are evocative of the events of the political and cultural life of the time in Russia.’ Probably none of the cycle of fifteen symphonies reflects the time and events in which it was written better than the monumental Seventh Symphony, widely known as the ‘Leningrad’.

Composed in 1939/40, the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony quickly became one of the composer’s best-known works. Originally Shostakovich planned to dedicate the score to Lenin but decided it should be dedicated instead to the city of Leningrad, where the majority of it was written. Although controversies have long raged about the true meaning of the symphony, it is not difficult to imagine how the score might reflect the strength and courage of the Soviet citizens, in particular the heroic resistance of the inhabitants of Leningrad that came under a devastating siege from Hitler’s invading troops. Shostakovich was evacuated to the Russian city of Kuibyshev where the world première of the score was given in March 1942 by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra under the conductor Samuil Samosud.

Sensing a propaganda coup to promote the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony as a symbol of the bravery, defiance and fortitude of the Soviet armed forces and people, the Allies were anxious to perform the score outside Russia as quickly as possible. A microfilm of the complete score was smuggled out of Leningrad to the West and consequently the North American première took place in New York in 1942 by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, a performance that was broadcast nationwide on radio. It has been claimed that as many as 20 million people heard the live broadcast of the symphony.

In ‘Testimony’ by Solomon Volkov (the book of disputed authenticity claiming to be Shostakovich’s memoirs) it was stated that the score did not so much reflect Shostakovich’s abhorrence of Nazi Germany as of Stalin’s Soviet Government, where the composer is reported to have said, ‘Actually I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege. It’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed, and that Hitler merely finished off.’ Whatever the reason, the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony is a powerful work with an effect that I believe can be enhanced by having a broad acquaintance of the dynamics of the time in which it was written. It has often coming in for criticism, unfairly in my view, but I have always enjoyed the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, especially in live performance.  According to Volkov’s Testimony, Shostakovich originally gave titles to each movement - ‘War’, ‘Reminiscence’, ‘Home Expanses’ and ‘Victory’ - which he later withdrew.

Expertly directed by Mariss Jansons, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays with total commitment, providing a highly charged performance of real character yet remaining splendidly in unison. It is a most determinedly alert reading with some splendid solo contributions. The immense and now infamous opening movement was, it seems, originally entitled ‘War’ and I find it hard to imagine anything else that the music might represent. The ‘invasion’ section from 6.07 is dramatically performed, developing a ferociously menacing and barbaric evocation of the invasion. I am struck by the focused playing in the second movement, described by the composer as both a Scherzo and a lyric Intermezzo, and formerly entitled ‘Memories’. It is sensitive in approach and Jansons never pushes this orchestra excessively. Named ‘Home Expanses’ the Adagio, a movement of real contrast, is given a reading that is both affecting and absorbing with a brash and anguished central section. Like the finest accounts, this performance creates a strong sense of a bleak and forbidding Siberian landscape together with a slight undertow of hopelessness. It is surprising how Mahlerian the strings sound at times, emitting a gloriously unified sheen. In the final movement, originally entitled ‘Victory’ marked Allegro non troppoModerato, a stark and foreboding central section is flanked by writing with a feeling of high energy with a striking momentum under Jansons, that concludes in a dramatic and triumphant manner.

The sound quality of the recording, made at the Philharmonie, Munich for radio broadcast by the Bayerischer Rundfunk, is first class, with satisfying clarity, presence and excellent balance. Although it is live, there is virtually no extraneous noise to worry about and the enthusiastic applause at the conclusion has been left in. Vera Baur is the author of the detailed booklet essay given in an English translation from the original German.

The recording of the ‘Leningrad’ that I usually reach for first is part of Vasily Petrenko’s cycle (mentioned above) with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and is available separately. Petrenko directs a stunning performance in this studio recording from 2012 from the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, on Naxos. Another recommendable account, forming part of an exciting complete set of Shostakovich symphonies, is from Rudolf Barshai, who studied and performed with the composer, becoming his close friend. Barshai conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester was recorded in 1992 in the Philharmonie, Cologne, on Brilliant Classics. This new BR Klassik recording of the ‘Leningrad’ from Mariss Jansons is up there with the finest accounts I know.

Michael Cookson

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